Two women have inspired me and helped me to find purpose in my life, but I knew neither of them. These women lived centuries apart and each made tremendous contributions both to the Jewish people and to humanity. As March is both Women’s History Month and Women’s Empowerment Month, it is a perfect time to reflect on their lives, purpose and achievements.
Many years ago, I read Henrietta Szold’s biography and was inspired by her intellect and her drive. Born in 1860, well before women had the right to vote, she was making a mark on society. A writer, editor, teacher of immigrants, social activist, and founder of Hadassah, this was a woman with purpose. What a role model, I thought.
Not too long after that, I happened upon a brief paragraph in the Jewish Encyclopedia about Doña Gracia Nasi. At that point in my life, I had never heard of this extraordinary woman, so I decided to order Cecil Roth’s classic biography, DoñaGracia of the House of Nasi, to learn more.
The minute the book arrived in the mail, I opened the cover, and what did I see?
Cecil Roth had dedicated the book to Henrietta Szold, his editor at the Jewish Publication Society. I was sure this was a sign.
Doña Gracia Nasi was born in Portugal in 1510, while the Spanish Inquisition raged. She spent the first decades of her life as a Crypto Jew, compelled to hide her true identity. As a very young and newly widowed mother, she risked her life by rescuing thousands of people fleeing religious persecution. She hid refugees in the holds of her ships, gave them shelter, arranged employment for them, and built schools to educate their children. She did all this while trying to stay one step ahead of some powerful pursuers: none other than the Holy Roman Emperor Charles and the Office of the Holy Inquisition.
At several points in this true saga her tormentors had Gracia jailed, but she prevailed and publicly declared her Jewish faith. After fleeing across Europe, ultimately found refuge in Ottoman Turkey, where she continued her philanthropic activities, and even extended them to the Land of Israel. Unfortunately, like Moses, she never got to see the Holy Land, dying in Constantinople in 1569.
That Gracia achieved what she did as a woman, a Crypto Jew at the height of the Inquisition, makes her accomplishments all the more astounding. Here was a woman with purpose.
When I get tired or frustrated and dream of retiring with a good book and a paper umbrella-festooned tropical drink, I remind myself of Henrietta Szold. This amazing woman grew a small study group into what became Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc. (HWZOA) an organization with over 300,000 empowered women in the U.S. She did it by turning words into action. She first established public health facilities in disease-infested Ottoman Palestine, helping to combat malaria, trachoma, and other public health calamities. From there she inspired thousands to help build hospitals that became the crown jewels of the new state of Israel, treating people of every race, religion, ethnicity, and nationality.
When Henrietta Szold traveled to Europe in 1933, she didn’t go to drink fancy cocktails. As the first Director of Youth Aliyah, she went to Nazi-occupied territory to rescue children and bring them to safety in villages built specifically to house, educate, and console the thousands of young people who had lost everybody they loved in the Holocaust.
Henrietta Szold was 74 years old when she first went to save those children. When she died in 1945, those children who had called her “Ima” (Mommy) mourned her, as did hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
Tens of thousands of children need help today, so I have no excuse. Fortunately, for the past four years I have had the enormous honor of walking in Henrietta Szold’s footsteps as Hadassah’s National Chair of Youth Aliyah, our child rescue project. Young immigrants and at-risk native Israelis (Jews, Arabs, and Druze alike) receive not only shelter and food, but counseling, education, and other support services. They receive the help and attention they need to develop into productive members of Israeli society.
Since 1934, when Henrietta Szold brought that first group of refugee children to the villages, over 300,000 young people from 80 lands have graduated from the program.
Henrietta Szold and Doña Gracia Nasi, together although centuries apart, helped me to find my purpose. I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to pursue my purpose, my passion, in Youth Aliyah. So, no paper umbrellas for me quite yet. There’s too much to do.
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